The robotics carriage slowly moves into place underneath the cow's udder. A computer relays the correct formation for the cow's teats. Four milking inflaters, looking like small, black upside-down plungers,move up and attach to the cow.
It's milking time at the Central Maryland Research and Education Center in Clarksville.
This specially trained cow from the dairy herd is about to be milked by a state-of-the art robotic prototype at the University of Maryland research farm. The system is one of two in the world. The other is at the developer corporation, Gascoigne Melotte, of the Netherlands.
"It's taken us eight months to get the bugs out enough to trustputting cows in it," said Walter F. Williams, center head since 1988. The university has exclusive rights to patent and publish its research improvements and findings on the experimental model.
For years, the experts said it couldn't be done.
Supposedly, everything could be automated except attaching the milking machine and cleaning theteats, which stimulates them to let down the milk.
The human element appeared to be indispensable -- and also a major problem.
"Increasingly, you cannot find labor with a farm background that can comein and know what they're doing," Williams says. "It's not pretty, clean work. This is not unique to the U.S. The Dutch went into this because they have the same problem. People don't likethose hours and dirty work. Our concern is to maintain economic viability."
"This also improves the quality of life for the cow," says Thomas W. Moreland,research manager.
He beams with enthusiasm as he puts the robot through its paces.
A system of metal pipe gates leads these specially trained cows to an automated feed trough. An automatic grain feeder guarantees each cow will show up for its individually set milking time.
"To a cow, fodder is vegetables,but grain . . . is steak," Moreland says.
Each cow wears a transponder collar containing a microchip that the gate reads to determine whether to let the cow in for feeding.
"Whether it's every eight hours, or 10 or 12, within a week that
cow will know exactly to the minute when to come to be fed," Moreland says.
Once the cow is standing at the trough in a stall of pipes, a series of metal panels moves it into a stable position.(A cow adjusts to each step after about a day or so.) A soft rollingbrush slides forward, spraying warm water and cleaning the teats, reminiscent of a car wash but apparently not unpleasant to the cows.
"This is one thing we know they like," Moreland says.
Each cow's teats have been entered as coordinates on a grid. At that point the machine attaches the milking cups to the cow.
"The basic structure is simple -- mercury switches, air cylinders," Moreland says. The bigcost is the computer system housed in a climate-controlled room overlooking the operation. It also provides a printout of milk productionand feed consumption. The computer readouts give vital statistics tomonitor the cow's health.
So what's the advantage for the cows?
"Ironically, it's more natural," Williams says. "A cow nurses her calf more than twice a day."
Research proves a cow milked three times a day produces 10 percent to 15 percent more milk, and a cow milked four times produces 20 percent more. With feeding times staggered, one machine can milk 40 head a day. Cows are usually milked twice a day.
The average American dairy farmer could milk his herd with only three robotic machines. To be cost effective, Williams says, the new machines will have to cost less than $100,000 when they reach the market.
Robotics is just part of a plan to modernize the center on Folly Quarter Road. The huge old dairy barn that came crashing down recently was only the latest casualty in a program scheduling every old building to be demolished.
"We're pulling down the barn on purpose before it falls down on someone accidentally," Williams says. "These buildings dating back to the '20s and '30s and '40s are incapable of doing the job. The entire layout will be replaced and brought up to date. We're trying to catch up with the end of the 20th century before the 21st century."
Three shining white aluminum buildings and trench silos herald a building program that will include new heifer barns, machine shop, storage facilities, education building and a tandamatic milking parlor.
The program should be completed within two years. The time frame for robotics research is uncertain because of the current
economy. Similar research is ongoing, sometimes in great secrecy, in Germany, the Netherlands, France and England.
"Europe has the same labor problems as we do, but more," says Williams, urgency creeping into his voice. "In the race to develop this technologyfirst, I hope that this is not a case where we get beaten again."